Yesterday I was sick and ended up with a whole day home alone (quite a rarity in this phase of my life). I watched two movies I’d been wanting to see for a long time: Kubo and the Two Strings and Interstellar.
Kubo is animated, ostensibly a kids’ movie, full of bright colors, Asian-themed, bouncing with energy, heavy on fantasy and magic, while Interstellar is very adult, bleak and somber, America-centric, slow-paced, heavy on sci fi. Very different films.
But also a lot of similarities. Both revolve around the parent/child bond; both have a lot of darkness; both are visually stunning; both have a twist at the end that redefines everything that’s come before, inviting a re-watch; both, strangely, star Matthew McConaughey (he’s the voice of Beetle in Kubo); both got fairly good Rotten Tomatoes scores (Kubo 97%, Interstellar 71%); both have more heart than brains; and both, ultimately, left me a little disappointed.
Let’s start with Kubo and the Two Strings.
Kubo is a kid with one eye. He lives with his mom. She warns him not to stay out past nightfall, or else his evil supernatural aunts and his evil grandfather the Moon King will steal his other eye. (Ahem. You have my attention.) Of course he does, and the baddies chase him (with grappling hooks!), and a lot of stuff happens but he ends up going on a quest with a monkey and a human-sized beetle samurai thing. (The “two strings” of the title refer to his musical instrument, which has a variety of magical powers and comes to symbolize his family.) It’s probably not a spoiler to say that he triumphs in the end.
As I mentioned, the animation is just gorgeous:
Kubo has magic of his own, which largely involves paper-folding (origami), and that’s cool to watch. The music is great too. And the story is pretty solid. In theory, it seems like an amazing movie.
One problem, for me, is that nearly all the dialogue is just … a little bit … off. It’s a subtle but persistent feeling that’s hard to describe. The rhythm of conversation, the timing, the flow, isn’t quite right. Pauses are just a bit too long, or something. It feels like the story is trying to move a tiny bit faster than the conversation, and it can’t. Legend of Korra had this same problem and it drove me bonkers. I doubt this will bother many other people, though.
Another problem: The way the story unfolds feels haphazard and arbitrary in a lot of places. Kubo and most of his family (good and evil alike) have magical powers of one kind or another, and the magic seems like it can do … well, whatever the story needs for that scene. Likewise, we move from one strange location to another without an overall sense of direction. It’s a problem because, the more arbitrary the story’s path becomes, the less the characters’ choices matter, and character choices are the heart of a story.
Also it gets really sappy near the end. I mean, it’s dark in a lot of places — I mean really dark, by “kids’ movie” standards — but by the end it’s so saccharine that even Disney’s like “Can you turn it down a notch?”
Okay, so. Interstellar.
This story is set in a dystopian, not-so-distant future, where we have (somehow) run out of food and (for some reason) cast aside technical knowledge, instead refocusing ourselves on traditional farming. It doesn’t make a lot of sense, but it’s a compelling premise: McConaughey plays Cooper, a pilot-turned-farmer who is raising his son Tom and his daughter Murphy on a dying planet, and yearning to use his engineering know-how to save the human race, and his kids in particular.
Again, the visuals are great:
The plot gets complicated — this is a Christopher Nolan movie, after all — so I’ll just say that Cooper has to leave his daughter Murphy behind to fly this long-shot interstellar mission, and everything he does out there is really all about getting back to her.
It’s a stark, slow, deliberate film, which is both good and bad: It definitely drags in places, especially in the second half, but it also has a sort of unhurried grandeur that seems fitting for a movie about something as huge as a true interstellar journey. (In that third screenshot, the smudge in the very center is actually two astronauts in space suits locked in a fistfight to the death, in the middle of absolutely nowhere. The shot is a flash of genius from Nolan.)
It’s also harrowing to watch. The formula for an emotional gut-punch is (deceptively) simple: Just forge a bond of unfathomable love between two people, and then stretch that bond until it screams, and then stretch it some more. Interstellar does this repeatedly with devastating power, with Cooper and his daughter, and it never feels cheap. One scene in particular gave me a new appreciation for McConaughey’s acting abilities.
So there’s a lot to like. But also a number of problems.
For starters, as I said, it’s long — almost three hours — and it feels long. I definitely think some parts could’ve been cut. It also gets into a lot of weird semi-philosophical semi-scientific mumbo jumbo near the end, and the further they drifted into that, the less interested I got. I don’t mind a complicated movie, but it has to feel like a puzzle worth unraveling, and this wasn’t really it. These two problems are linked, and they were probably the biggest obstacle to enjoyment for me.
About the scientific accuracy of the movie — I guess I need to do some more thinking. Last night I subjected my poor wife to a rant about how bad the science was, but today I’m reading about how accurate it is, how painstaking the research was. So I may need to brush up on my own knowledge of relativity and see if some of my criticisms were wrong. None of that matters too much to the story, but I’m a science guy, so I’m interested (and apparently Nolan is interested too).
In summary: I wasn’t really impressed with either movie overall, but both were very impressive in certain particular ways, and both were clearly made with a lot of love. Also, I’m pretty weird, and a lot of my criticisms are things that won’t bother anyone else.
See how helpful I am?